Taking Wing: Black Swan Rising

Aircraft line closed taxiways and ­runways at airports across the country. iStock/KenRinger

It was a bright spring day at Flight Level 350, far above the Chesapeake Bay, as we cruised up the Eastern Seaboard en route to Newark, New Jersey. This was my first time flying a jet in more than a month—really flying, not playacting in a giant video game on hydraulic stilts ensconced in the antiseptic cloisters of the training center.

This return to the flight levels, the escape from late-winter gloom, the warm sunshine bathing my lofty perch in the Boeing 737′s left seat: all of this felt wonderful, yet I couldn’t escape the dead, gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was my first day of Initial Operating Experience—my first day as a major airline captain—with shiny new commander’s wings and four-stripe epaulets so pristine that the gold thread still gleamed. One’s first captain checkout is normally a joyous, momentous occasion; instead, I felt faintly sick.

I looked over to the right seat, where youthful-looking line check airman Sean was expounding on some of the finer points of 737 VNAV usage. I forced myself to pay attention to his lesson, to keep my mind on the task at hand. Habit is an airline pilot’s best friend and distraction an enemy to be kept at bay. Being new to my seat and airplane, I was still reworking my habits, and I could think of few worse distractions than suddenly finding one’s airline fighting for its very survival.

All through the month of training, there had been distant but ominous rumblings of approaching crises: reports from Wuhan (China), South Korea, Italy, Seattle. Cancellation of China flights, then a drawdown to Seoul. Increasingly light loads on my commuter flights to and from Windbird’s winter berth near Orlando, Florida. Black humor in the training-center halls, pockets of nervous laughter. Formulaic partisan oaths uttered against the media, against the hated opposition party: “It’s a hoax. It’s being blown out of proportion—it’s just the flu.”

But viruses are no great respecters of political party, ethnicity, religion or economic status—nor, in this age of airplanes, of national boundaries or great barriers of geography. And the math was inexorable: R0=2.8—the basic reproduction number for the virus, as it was then understood—with caseload doubling every three days.

The night before my first day of IOE came the sudden, shocking announcement: Europe was cut off, our busiest and richest market was gone in a flash, and the rest of the world would soon follow. When I signed in for my trip the next morning, the normally bustling crew room was full of grim-faced pilots silently going about their business, eyes averted downward. You could have heard a pin drop.

The airline business, indeed all of aviation, has been a boom-or-bust roller coaster since day one, with the downturns often precipitated by unexpected outside events called “black swans.” For today’s generation of airline pilots, the definitive black swan was 9/11, a multifaceted tragedy that directly involved the airlines and continued to reverberate for more than a decade afterward.

I wasn’t at the airlines yet in 2001; I was flight instructing and finishing my senior year at the University of North Dakota. At my employer, however, there are almost 2,000 pilots who were furloughed after 9/11 and, in many cases, spent years on the street. Those who remained saw their pay halved, their contract gutted, their retirement stolen. For a while, the survival of the airline was very much in doubt. It was a searing experience for those who were here, and ever since, much of the rhetoric during contract negotiations has centered around regaining what was lost. The extent of the post-9/11 trauma is difficult for outsiders to understand, but in a seniority-bound industry, where major airline pilots are essentially wedded to their employer for life, it was something akin to a family tragedy.

Many of the more-senior pilots at my airline were also around for the previous black swan: the first Gulf War in 1990-91. Oil prices spiked, the economy tanked and spooked passengers fled in droves. The airlines furloughed, and Pan American World Airways collapsed. My employer bought some of Pan Am’s routes and hired about 700 of their pilots—a number of whom I’ve flown with, along with veterans of Eastern, Brainiff, TWA and other old storied names that folded along the way.

That experience, along with 9/11, the bankruptcy and the Great Recession, left many older pilots with a fairly cynical view of the industry. Only in recent years has there been a relaxation of suspicion, a lowering of the guard, a grudging admission that maybe this time was different. Perhaps, in the wake of the mergers and the imposition of capacity discipline, the good times really were here to stay. The black swan of COVID-19 has stripped away this newfound optimism very quickly.

The newer, younger pilots are different. More than 40 percent of my airline’s seniority list was hired after 9/11 and the bankruptcy. (We’ve already hired a few pilots who were in kindergarten in 2001.) Few of us had really lived through a black-swan event. To be sure, the Great Recession, coupled with a 5-year increase in the mandatory retirement age, certainly impacted our careers. However, it was too slow-moving to be a true black swan, the instability was largely confined to the regional airlines and corporate-aviation sector, and post-merger political considerations kept furloughs at bay at the legacy carriers.

As we were hired at our dream jobs, as retirements increased and we moved up the seniority lists, as our employers raked in record-breaking profits, I think many of us felt as though we had “made it,” as though the struggles of our early careers were in the past, and now it was time for us to reap the rewards. And for those who replaced us at the regional airlines, who had seen such intense demand for their services completely transform that sector, the future looked bright indeed. I think most of us knew, intellectually, that this was still a cyclical industry with a great capacity to upend any plans, but we hadn’t internalized this fact the way our elder co-workers had. And so the sudden appearance of this black swan has caught us out of sorts.

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

At least we weren’t alone in our hubris. Wall Street certainly felt that the airlines’ troubles were behind them. Management proclaimed a post-merger paradigm shift. Recently, the CEO of one major airline declared that his company would never lose money again, and the statement was mostly met with nodding agreement rather than derision. So when management took those record-breaking profits and plowed billions of dollars into stock buybacks that did little but enrich the C-suites, they faced little pushback outside of low-grade employee grumbling.

In retrospect, it is obvious how exposed we were to a worldwide pandemic, how inevitable it was that a better, smarter virus would evolve and spread across the globe. Epidemiologists had been warning about it for years. The US airline industry had several shots across the bow in the form of SARS, H1N1 and Ebola, inconvenient warnings that went unheeded; we mirrored the US government, business community and society as a whole—and now there’s a price to pay.

I had eight days of IOE scheduled in mid-March, affording a front-row seat as a massive global airline was brought to its knees. First, a 40 percent cut in capacity was announced, then 60 percent, then 85 percent. Flight loads got lighter and lighter, until it was common to have 10 paying passengers on a 180-seat jet. Revenue dropped to almost nothing, and the airline starting chewing through cash at a voracious rate. Flights were canceled by the thousands; crewmembers were stranded in pandemic hotspots for days at a time.

We parked some 700 airplanes, closing a runway and several taxiways at the world’s busiest airport to make room for a few hundred jets, ferrying the rest to various storage facilities in a massive weekend airlift. We hastily retired one fleet and accelerated the drawdown of four more; the remainder are grounded only temporarily, we hope. This was repeated across every airline in the country, then the globe. In normal times, it would have been the biggest news story of the year, but it was dwarfed by everything else happening around the world.

The funny thing is, my IOE was almost normal. The line check airmen didn’t talk much about what was happening at the airline; there was too much subject matter to cover in a limited time. The newness of the airplane and my seat kept my mind pretty well-occupied. The light loads added to the challenge a bit by accelerating the boarding process and turning the 737 into a sprightly sports car to rival my beloved 757. By the last two scheduled legs, I was ready for my FAA line check, and it went very well. Normally, this would be the grand finale of IOE, and I would be quickly unleashed upon the traveling public.

Unfortunately, one of our long legs had canceled, leaving me short of the required 25 hours. I headed back to Windbird in eastern Florida to await further developments. I’m still here two weeks later, wondering whether I’ll actually finish IOE before being presumably downgraded back to the right seat. Even furlough isn’t out of the question at this point, and there’s a decent chance of one of the legacy carriers going bankrupt or collapsing altogether despite the recently passed $50 billion bailout.

This column is a bit of a time capsule. I’m writing these words on April 2, several weeks before you’re reading them—which, given the pace of events lately, might as well be years. By the time you read this, if social distancing and other measures have had the desired effect, we may well be past the peak and on our way to recovery. I hope that’s the case; otherwise, we could be in for a lengthy wait for a vaccine. I’ll fly when the airline calls me to fly, do my very best to keep my crew and passengers safe, and enjoy every flight like it’s my last.

This crisis has reminded me of two basic truths that are central to my chosen profession. The first is that almost nobody actually needs to fly, and as long as that’s true, aviation will always be susceptible to the sudden appearance of a black swan. But the second truth is that most people do like to fly—whether to travel the world, connect with loved ones or conduct business—and I think they’ll return to the skies in droves once we’re over this thing. When America is ready to fly again, my colleagues and I will be ready and waiting.

This story appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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